How delightful, Peter thought, that the most attractive young woman on the campus bus got off at his stop and now walked before him on the path toward Barnhardt Hall. Her perfume took possession of the air around her—something with jasmine and lilac, perhaps. Completely intoxicating. She was foreign, from India or one of the countries in the neighborhood, he guessed, and she had occasioned for the last twenty minutes every hackneyed fantasy Peter had ever had about the harems of the east—the long silken ink-black hair plaited down her back, the aristocratic cheekbones, the sumptuous long lashes surrounding liquid brown eyes, and the curvaceous body of an erotic goddess who has stepped off a temple frieze in Rajasthan. My goodness, he thought, she's going into the English department, and, indeed, she turned to hold the door for him. A moment later he had the pleasure of holding the elevator doors open for her and asking as they stepped into it alone, "What floor?"
"Five," she smiled, a delicate mole at the corner of her mouth, where a dimple would be. The fifth floor, the faculty offices, his floor. His pulse quickened.
He pressed the button and stepped back. Snatching little glances, he mused on her age. Twenty? Twenty-five? He'd long ago given up trying to accurately guess the ages of the girls on campus, but she appeared older than most of his students, and more attractive by far. A graduate student? And what might this beauty, this angel, be studying? The academic fields flitted through his mind: Eighteenth-Century British Lit, Linguistics, Twentieth-Century Serbian Film, Postmodern Novels, or maybe—
The elevator lurched to a halt, knocking them both off-balance. Peter reached out a hand to steady himself, an innocent gesture, all in the name of self-preservation. Not wanting to look a fool in front of this stunning young woman, he reached out and grazed her left breast. He grazed. Her left breast.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," he said, the color, the heat, rising to his face, his ears. "I didn't mean . . ."
"It's okay," she said, her voice melodious, practiced.
"It was an accident . . ."
"Really, it's all right," she said. "Don't worry about it."
The smile from before was gone, vanished, replaced with quiet discomfort. At that moment, Peter would have given anything to see that smile return, to turn back the clock thirty seconds, a minute, to relive the moment without such utter embarrassment. He wanted to beg, to drop to his knees and beg, plead for her forgiveness, her understanding, and he almost began lowering himself when she stepped forward and pushed the call button.
"Yes," she said, "the elevator seems to have gotten stuck."
"Which building are you in?"
She turned to Peter, who blurted, "Barnhardt Hall. We've stopped between the second and third floors."
"Okay, I'll send out a technician right away. Keep put and do not try to force open the doors. Hopefully we'll have you out of there within the hour."
She released the button and dug around in her purse, produced a razor-thin flip phone, purple. "Wonderful," she said. "I have an appointment with Dr. Quek in ten minutes and there's no reception in here."
Peter retrieved his own cell phone from a pants pocket. "I've got three bars," he said. "You can use mine."
She took the phone, her fingers long and tapered.
Peter listened as she explained the situation to Dr. Quek, the department head, his boss. He was grateful when she left out his breast grazing. As she talked, he wondered why she was going to see the head of the English department. Was she interviewing for a job? Or was she taking Dr. Quek's class on Chinese fiction and social modernity? The conversation yielded no clues.
After she finished, she handed the phone back to Peter. He called the department secretary and told her he would most likely miss his 10:15 class, Modern Literature of the Fantastic, his specialty. His students would be relieved. It was always like this at the end of the spring semester, the slacking of attention, the glazing over of tired eyes, the surfeit of nod-and-jerk maneuvers.
Peter slid the cell phone, a recent gift from his wife Darja, back into his pocket. He and the young Indian woman stood in silence for a moment or two, both facing the doors, hands at their sides, the apotheosis of elevator etiquette. Then Peter turned, extended his hand, and said, with a slight quaver, "My name is Peter."
She took his hand in hers, her palm cool and soft and dry. "Peter Fierté?"
"Um, yes, how did you . . ."
"I'm afraid this is a bit . . . embarrassing." She plunged back into her purse and brought out a slim book, a novel, with a black and white photograph of a gothic tower on the cover. It was Peter's first novel, a novella actually. He had gotten his teaching position at the university based on the strength of that book. "I've actually been hoping to meet you," she said.
"Oh, would you look at that," he said. "I thought this was out of print." Slight scuff marks marred the cover, but other than that it looked brand new. A first edition. And he knew without looking that a photo of him appearing fifteen years younger was displayed on the back.
"eBay," she said. "You don't even want to know how much I paid for this. I tend to get very competitive with my online auctions."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh yes. Very much. It reminded me a little of Kafka and Calvino."
Peter smiled. "That's perceptive of you. Both those authors are big influences on my fiction, and I actually teach them in my class. The class I'll be missing today."
"Would you mind signing it for me?"
Peter took the book, again marveling at the condition, then produced a pen from his jacket pocket. It was the limited edition Mont Blanc that Darja had bought for him before his first book tour. They had only been dating at that point, and he knew it was much more than she could afford on a doctoral candidate's salary, but he'd gladly accepted the ballpoint pen and had only used it to sign books ever since. It was the first pen he'd ever received with an instruction booklet.
He unscrewed the pen cap, opened to the title page, and stopped.
"To whom should I make this out?"
"Mira," she said. "Mira Singh."
Peter wrote, in broad, swift strokes: Towers for Mira—Your pal, Peter, then signed his name. He blew on the ink to dry it, then handed the book back. She returned it to her purse without looking at the inscription.
"Thank you very much," she said.
"You're very welcome."
Another awkward pause, some shuffling of feet, an exhale.
"So," he said, "are you taking one of Dr. Quek's classes?"
"No, I'm actually interviewing for an adjunct position here. Which is why all this waiting is killing me right now."
"Well, good luck with the interview. The university's been tightening the purse strings again, but you might still be able to negotiate a decent rate. Adjuncting is hard work. I did that for a few years after leaving graduate school."
The talk was more comfortable after that. They started to open up about their academic pasts, their fields of interest. She had just graduated from Chicago with an M.A. Older than Peter had thought. Her focus had been on Indian epic poetry, specifically The Ramayana, on which she had written her thesis. She was hoping to travel to Hampi in order to visit the Hazar Rama Temple, which depicts the story of The Ramayana in detail.
"I haven't been back there since I was young," she said. "I was born in Chicago, but my parents thought it important my brother and I knew where we came from. All I remember is the long plane rides, the endless relatives I never really knew, sleeping on the floor."
Peter tried to imagine Mira as a little girl, playing barefoot in the dusty Indian streets, and found it difficult.
"I resented my parents so much for taking me away from my friends here for months at a time. It wasn't until I got to college that I started to embrace my culture."
"Will you be going again?"
She nodded. "Next month. I won a travel grant that'll pay for most of my expenses, and I should be over there for much of the summer. My mother is so proud."
"And your father?"
She hesitated, and he knew unequivocally, undeniably, that he had misstepped.
"He died last year."
Peter cleared his throat. "I'm so sorry."
"Thanks. It wasn't that big of a shock. Throat cancer. But it still hurts."
Peter found himself compelled to take Mira in his arms, to comfort her, to hug her, to tell her that everything would be all right, that the pain would someday go away, that life goes on, that it is how we deal with grief that makes us human, he wanted to soothe her with these lies and platitudes, to feel her sink into his embrace, squeeze back with all the strength in her small frame, look into his eyes, feel that spark, and her lips reach up to connect with his—
"Er . . ."
"So," she said, "how about you? Are you married?"
It took him a moment to recover from the change in subject. "Yes. Fourteen years."
"How did you meet?"
"A mutual friend introduced us."
"Fourteen years is a long time."
"Yes, it is."
The jasmine/lilac perfume, to which Peter had gotten accustomed, and forgotten about, abruptly intensified in the small space. Where the scent had before delighted his senses, it was now a bit too heavy, a cloying presence in the elevator, overwhelming, a bludgeon. He coughed.
"Your perfume . . ."
"I'm not wearing perfume," Mira said.
Peter turned and her eyes were on him, no longer polite, or detached, or sad, but hungry, ravenous. He backed away, his legs unable to work properly, stumbling into the mirrored wall, seeing a thousand thousand reflections of Mira behind her, his head stuffed, packed with cotton. A grin played across her full lips.
"What's . . . what's happening . . ."
"Tell me the truth, Peter," said the myriad of Miras. "After fourteen years, does your wife still excite you?"
"What? I don't—"
"Does she fill your thoughts, make you want to hurry home to be with her, does she satisfy your every desire? Does she set your brain afire with intellectual and sexual stimulation?"
"Why? I don't understand what—"
"I can see unfulfilled salacity in you, Peter. You yearn for something more. Deep in your soul, you know that the only reason Darja bought the cell phone is so that she could keep track of you, make sure you don't wander too far. You miss the intensity, the passion of those first few years of the marriage. You're stuck, frozen in a relationship of comfort and dependability, the real fire gone for years."
Peter wanted to tell Mira that passion is fleeting, that the physical intensity was not meant to last, that the fervor fades and softens and isn't really what's important anyway, that hopefully you're left with trust and security and companionship, someone you want to grow old with. He wanted to say all this and more, but the words would not come. They caught in his throat, blocked by an invisible barrier, unable to break free.
"Darja just doesn't do it for you anymore, does she?"
"No," he found himself saying.
"You need something more."
"Do you want me?"
"Do you need me?"
"Do you worship me?"
Mira rushed forward and kissed him, hard, a sudden compression of lips and teeth and tongues. His bottom lip was bleeding, but he could not stop, locked in her embrace, drowning, asphyxiating from this inundation of desire, losing his identity in her lips, an erection stirring in his pants, the air too warm, and not enough, enough to take in, the perfume or natural scent filling every molecule of available space, the black spots dancing before his eyes, and he didn't even notice when the elevator hummed and thrummed to life, the numbers above the doors proceeding down instead of up, and him unable to stop, to separate, to pull himself away, stuck impossibly together against his will, and she turning him so that her back was against the wall, a predicated predatory position, and the doors sliding open, ding, the ground floor. Mira pushed him away, shrieked, slapped him hard across the left cheek, bolted from the elevator, almost running down Dr. Quek, who had been patiently waiting for the last five minutes for Mira to exit the elevator, waiting to escort the young woman to her office, and the look on her face, that dropped jaw, those squinted eyes, the disbelief, the anger, and Peter knowing that not only will he be fired, but most likely brought up on charges of sexual harassment, or maybe of rape, forcing himself on a vulnerable young woman, and Darja would inform him by mail of their divorce, all of his things moved to a storage facility, and he knew that Mira had intended this all along, but unable to stop her, watching as she ran with those perfectly sculpted legs, that perfectly plaited hair streaming behind her as if from some unseen wind, running from him, down the hall, running and laughing like a sprite, a pixie, a fairy, laughing, laughing, laughing.
Jason Erik Lundberg is an American expatriate living in Singapore, and the author of The Time Traveler's Son (Papaveria Press), Four Seasons in One Day (Two Cranes Press, with Janet Chui), and over forty articles and short stories; he is also the co-editor of Scattered, Covered, Smothered and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. His solo work has most recently appeared in Sybil's Garage, Behind the Wainscot, Hot Metal Bridge, the Raleigh News & Observer, Text:UR—The New Book of Masks, The Third Alternative and Electric Velocipede; later in 2008, his writing will see publication in Polyphony, Subterranean Magazine, Tiny Stories, Strange Horizons, and other cool venues. He teaches English at Hwa Chong Institution, where there are no elevators.
copyright © 2008, Jason Erik Lundberg
—Annabel on the Eighteenth Floor
C. L. BRUSSEL
JASON ERIK LUNDBERG
—Rhapsody in Transverse Vibration
—The Red Door
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
—Several Stories, Single Bound
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
MICHAEL NEAL MORRIS